Not a movie review. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Clearly this is not a movie review. Rather it is an invitation. An open invitation to watch this movie (again) and to see it through a particularly magical lens. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a movie that received a lot of unfair criticism. I say ‘unfair’, not only because compared to the digital trash such as the myriad of superhero movies unleashed upon us, it has an old myth with plenty of real spiritual beings woven into it at its story-telling heart. But more importantly because through a magical lens it has an astonishing amount of real insights and even pearls of wisdom to offer. This is the kind of movie you want to watch with your kids - and help them hang their dreams on it. Because behind its facade of action and fantasy, it holds on to a mythical landscape and reality, that they might choose to discover on their own later on in their lives...
I guess, Joan put it perfectly why this movie might have sparked such contrary reactions. She watched it with friends and came out of the cinema loving it while her friends hated it. Her laconic commentary was: Well, I guess we all see different things.
So this is what we will try here: In four short commentaries we’ll shine a light on some of the magical scenes this wonderful action movie is taking us into. The following brief comments are not at all meant to ‘explain’ the respective scenes, but to draw our attention to specific places in the narrative of a movie that might deserve a second viewing... Speaking for myself, I watched it four times within the matter of two weeks, and am still discovering more.
— Finally, here is a 'Thank You' to all the wonderful people who have worked on this movie. A Thank you to all their creativity, passion and magic that they have bound into these images. I invite us to honour their work - as mass media consumers with our time (and maybe our money when buying the movie?), and as magicians with our ability to see.
The obvious place to start our little ‘King Arthur’ exploration is the mage. Her entire character design is raw, gritty and down to earth. The same is true for her approach to magic: we witness a chthonic form of magic that is particularly related to the sphere of the shaman, the elemental realm of stones, plants and animals.
What I found quite stunning to see is how real the visual depiction is of how she works her magic: she shuts up, turns her senses outside in, concentrates like hell and works in vision with the world around her. No circle, sword, crown, or dagger needed. Her magic lies in the bite of a snake, the smoke of herbs and the wisdom of dreams. Working her magic also leaves her physically drained and exhausted - to a stage where significant acts of magic put her own health and life at risk. A very real aspect of magic that is left out for all the wrong reasons in most mass media depiction of our craft.
Watch it in minute 42:30 - she even leaves her magical robe behind without a shrug. What a good woman!
The title-giving sword of the movie obviously is a living magical being in its own right. According to the movie’s mythical landscape, we learn, Excalibur was forged from Merlin’staff. I.e. it is a magical wand transformed into a sword; such meditation in itself should provide sufficient substance for a few magical diary entries...
In the movie's version, however, Excalibur can only unfold its powers when firmly held with both hands. As pointed out in the movie a few times (and highlighted in the Special Features section) the idea is that the holder of the sword needs to close ‘the circuit’ by firmly grasping it with both hands. This is a wonderful way of depicting an essential truth about any magical weapon: unless they are turned a part of the mage’s body, they will not be able to mediate their full force. A critical aspect of their power rests in ‘making them flesh’. For this they don’t need to be bathed in our blood, but we need to allow them to gain access to our selves. Holding a sword with both hands, thus temporarily making it part of one’s body, is a graceful way of expressing this idea in a movie.
More importantly - and here we get into the depth of adept magic - the sword turns King Arthur father’s body into a rock and binds itself into it. The mage entirely becomes one with the sword upon his death and drowned in an underground lake. Note that the sword takes the place of his spine. Enough said. I recommend you ask your own magical swords for further explanations, if that is what you are after.
The Vision Quest
Like all magicians who aspire to turn themselves into adepts, so also Arthur needs to undergo the dark night of the soul to become King Arthur.
Admittedly, it’s in this wild shamanic death trip that the movie is losing some of its precision and visionary narrative. However, it starts brilliantly and is still recognisably enough: Arthur is left on a haunted island, intoxicated with herbal poisons and left by the mage in a hand-drawn circle. What we see next is the double narrative of what happens to Arthur in physicality and in magical vision: While his physical body is stumbling around the island like a drunk, falling into rivers, down waterfalls or climbing rocks and mountains like a blind - the narrative in vision is very different. Here he encounters magical creatures, and is not at all on a random journey, but on a spiritual quest through several gates of trial, towards the mystical tower, where the full powers of the sword that was granted to him are revealed to him.
Again, just like in the case of the mage before, this vision-quest is not to be taken lightly - but results in the most severe physical harm that the character experiences in the entire movie.
The Lady of the Lake
Towards the last third of the movie we find Arthur disillusioned about the direct and merciless impact the sword has on his life as well as on the one of his loved ones. In the middle of the night he is throwing it back into the lake. Then we see him running through the woods, aimlessly until dawn, screaming in agony about the fate he has brought about his friends and how many of them had died in the battle of the previous day.
Finally, deep in the forest, he breaks down in exhaustion in a muddy valley. His hands push deeply into the mud - and suddenly we see the scene from underground - where there is no soil, but black, open waters. Again, the narrative switches into vision, and the lady of the lake is pulling Arthur downwards, almost drowning him under water, revealing to him why he must not aim to escape his fate and handing the sword back to him.
Returned to his physical body, we see Arthur pulling his hands from the mud, holding the actual magical sword in his hands again. — Very rarely do movies, not even the ones of masters such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, provide such accurate depiction of how true, contacted magic actually works. Magic, once bound into our spiritual blood, we do not get to throw away, return or hand back. Not in this life and not in a future one. It has become one with us (or our family lines) - for all the costs, now and in the future, that come with it.
In particular in this sense, Ritchie's King Arthur inspires to take the position of the hero ourselves: Had Arthur not accepted to pull his sword from the mud again, to firmly hold on to it and to continue his path within his own fate pattern, the movie would have turned into a tragic repetition of failures and boring loops of misery... Maybe this is the invitation the movie offers to us: to look for our own swords? Despite the price, the suffering and learning they come with. Rather than listening to our own agony, we might want to take a midnight walk into the forest, and begin to listen to the lady of the lake. Once we have mixed our blood with a pattern, no labyrinth ever will lead out of it again. As Fritz Perls said with a look to life in general: the only way is through.
Finally, a note. Just in case like me you liked King Arthur’s magic, I am sure you’ll also love some of the books below. Most likely you have read a few of them already? Either way, for the upcoming long winter nights here are some further reading recommendations on magic told through stories...